John Carlson: Ladies Manhandle Clippers

Holly Ling cuts the hair of another satisfied customer. Photo by: John CarlsonHolly Ling cuts the hair of another satisfied customer. Photo by: John Carlson

By: John Carlson—

Growing up, I never felt like a haircut wimp for having mine done by a lady barber.

When I was ten or so, Dad got word about a woman a few streets over who was constantly being visited by guys, fellows who invariably left her house grinning. Naturally, rumors of this woman’s place threatened to launch my buddies and me into ecstasies of pre-adolescent hormonal bliss. Turned out all she was selling, though, was haircuts.

But not just haircuts. Cheap haircuts.

A kindly, grandmotherly lady, she wasn’t officially trained or licensed or inspected. What she was, however, was embracing her entrepreneurial spirit to undercut the standard price of haircuts in my hometown. This left our city’s professional barbers in a tizzy. First, they wished she would drop her business. As she continued undercutting them, they wished she would drop dead.

These barbers were playing hardball, but you could understand why.

In the parlance of the day, her haircuts cost just four bits, meaning fifty cents, a significant savings over the outrageous buck or two the pros were charging. And her haircuts were quick! Walking into her living room, you’d spend about three minutes, tops, with her running electric clippers over your head. To all appearances, she’d mastered her barbering skills in their entirety during a stint with the Marines, or maybe the French Foreign Legion.

Either way, the day came when the barbering powers-that-be shut her down, leading to what I now think of, haircut-wise, as “My Life Is A Living Hell” years.

Having tasted the nectar of cheap haircuts, at least for his undiscriminating son, Dad wanted more. Using his considerable ciphering skills, he figured the cost of buying his own hair-cutting kit, then divided that by my pain, misery and likely onset of clinical depression every time he dug the frickin’ clippers from his gun cabinet.

His final decision: Cutting my hair himself would be a bargain.

Looking back on those years, it seems every day Dad gave me a haircut was a summer day, about four o’clock in the afternoon, with the heat radiating so intensely from the cracked concrete slab we called our “porch,” you could fry hot dogs on it. That’s where, with the solemnity of a hangman building a gallows, he’d set out our yellow, metal, retractable kitchen stool. With me perched atop it while sweating my head off, he’d tighten a heavy plastic cape around my neck. He always knew how tight to make it by watching when my eyeballs rolled back in my head.

Then he’d begin cutting.

Here’s the part I never understood. Dad could be a tough cookie, a macho, impatient, no-nonsense guy who started honking the horn out on the street if my three-minute haircut stretched into, say, four. But just put me on that sweltering porch, melting under a blistering sun, then stick those godforsaken clippers in his hand? All of a sudden Gordon Carlson, wounded Navy war veteran, General Motors superintendent  and holder of degrees in math and chemistry, turned into Monsieur Gordy of Hollywood, Hairdresser to the Stars. He’d clip this way. He’d clip that way. He’d plow a path across my head, then suddenly reverse course. Individually sculpting every stinking hair insolently sprouting from my steaming noggin, he’d take forty-five minutes, even an hour, to finish the job.

Then, poking his hand mirror in front of my face, he’d expectantly ask, “Well! Whadaya think, Johnny?”

I was always tempted to answer with a jocular, “Well! It looks like hell, Dad!” But, hey, my haircut could have looked like two possums making baby possums on my head and I’d have never muttered a word of complaint.

“Best haircut ever!” I’d lie.

For at least another week or two, I was done!

Anyhow, the “My Life Is A Living Hell” haircut era eventually passed and, barring the years I desperately wanted to look like Iggy Pop, I employed a variety of male barbers into my late-sixties. They were all fine barbers, too, skilled magicians of the hirsute arts! But I was in between barbers a while back when somebody reminded me my buddy Jimmy Hayes’ daughter was a stylist who cuts men’s hair at John Jay & Co.

Therefore, I chanced a visit.

Cinching the cape around my neck, Holly Ling stopped way before my eyeballs even considered rolling back in my head. While cutting my hair, we talked about joyful topics like my favorite bands, as opposed to my latest prostate flare-up. Oh sure, she was less responsive than most guy barbers when I mentioned, “Hey, Holly, how ‘bout them Colts?” But she was way more responsive than most guy barbers when I mentioned something that she, as a mother of young children, felt strongly about, like, “Hey, Holly, how ‘bout them s’mores?”

Holly even offered to wash my hair. No male barber had ever offered to wash my hair, nor would they have, even if my head had been on fire. So yeah, Holly is now my barber, and I’m happy about it. That’s not to say I won’t go back to a male barber once she retires from the hair-cutting business.

But seeing as I’m at least thirty years older than she is, and will be pushing 100 by the time she hangs up  her clippers, I probably won’t have much hair left.


A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.